Hand-written "£10 ono"

On the money

Take a look at this, please, and spot the one ridiculous part of it:

I’ve been flown out to St Tropez by a swimwear fashion company that is desperate for me to model their Summer collection. We’ve taken test shots with me pointing at things out of frame. Some of us have taken coke, some of us have taken Pepsi. And now it’s down to the real business: I ask what they’re willing to pay me.

The fashion CEO takes out a pen and a piece of paper. She writes a figure down and slides the paper across the table to me. As I read it, my eyes widen and I try to look calm.

Sometimes you’re rotten to me. The thing you were supposed to think ridiculous is that stuff with the paper and the note about the money.

At no point in the history of any negotiation with anyone about anything has a single soul written a sum of money down on paper and slid it across any surface to anybody ever.

Yet we see it in TV and film drama around once a month.

I think the shows might have a mind to the drama’s prospects for being repeated on ITV4 for the next several decades. The Six Million Dollar Man, for instance, could now just be somebody working at the top of the BBC pay scale, at least so long as it is a man.

Or maybe the makers are thinking of international sales and how never actually saying or showing the figure in Sterling or dollars or whatever it is might be a distraction.

There is one last possibility I can think of and it’s that the writer has not had the same level of experience in fashion modelling that I have and so doesn’t have a clue what an impressive figure would be. In either sense.

I have a solution. Say the figure aloud. We’re already supposed to get that it’s a big number because of the recipient’s reaction, we’ll still get that it seems a big number to him or her in exactly the same way.

Whereas when it’s this note slid across a table, I’m out of the story. I’m seeing a constructed piece of artifice, I’m not seeing characters I’m engaged with.

“I said explain it to me, not talk science”

You’ve seen this. You’re reading a book or watching a film and some character says something that jars. It sounds more like the author talking than the character. It feels imposed somehow, like an idea has been added in through product placement.

Sometimes it actually is product placement. There was a sitcom recently where a character needed to find out something and announced that he’d Bing it. No, he wouldn’t. He’d Google it like everyone else, but Microsoft was paying for the promotion of their search service.

Often it actually is the author or the screenwriter, such as when there’s a political point to be made and it’s theirs instead of the characters.

That’s a tougher one: I don’t think writers always notice when they do it.

And then you have issues like Abi Morgan’s Suffragette. I think she did a marvellous job of conveying society and in particular men’s rejection of women’s rights. Yet it’s a case where the protagonists are the suffragettes and the antagonist is an entire society that is giant and also so clearly, entirely, totally wrong.

Drama works best, I believe, when it’s about two people arguing and they’re both right. Morgan had to find a way to embody male society and for dramatic purposes also to not make it as clear-cut a case of men wrong, women right as it actually was. The more I think of what she had to pull off in that script, the more impressed I am that she did it yet it’s still a case of the writer’s politics impressing on every character in some way.

The Bing case just saw me jerk my head and lament the state of advertising on television today. The Suffragette one was a case of my thinking about it after seeing the film.

Whereas “I said explain it to me, not talk science” is a line that stops me watching.

Quite literally: that line stopped me watching.

I relish time travel stories and there’s an intriguing film called Deja Vu by Bill Marsilii and Terry Rossio but I can’t get through it. Because of that line. In fairness, it isn’t quite as bad as the more common “Talk English, Doc!” that you regularly get.

But the intention is the identical and so is the effect. It’s just that those two things are not the same.

The intention is to make an explanation sound scientifically plausible while simultaneously making it accessible to non-scientists. The intention is to have us identify with the hero, who is always the one saying this, and so humanise the situation.

The effect is to say that the audience is stupid and the hero is more so. Without one single exception, whenever you hear a line like this, it is interrupting a scientific explanation that a five-year-old would’ve understood anyway. This is because the writer has no interest in science and so picked up the first fact he or she found in Physics for Dummies and assumes you don’t know it.

invariably, the science is nothing so having the hero interrupt is actually making that hero look thicker than multiple planks laid together. You can argue that it’s making an adversarial relationship with the scientists and drama feeds on argument, but instead it’s telling me that the scientists are rubbish and that they are the hero’s enemy.

Every character comes out of this badly and perhaps that’s ultimately the problem: I cease to believe any of them. i’ve said it before, if I don’t believe the characters, I don’t give a damn what happens to them. And this particular case, i’l never know because I stopped Deja Vu right there.

Here’s the trailer. If you see the film or if you have already seen it, tell me whether it gets any better. I’m on @WGallagher. Thanks.

Anger from Inside Out

Pickles

So maybe you know that the Baader-Meinhof Syndrome is when you hear a word or something for the first time and then seem to see it everywhere. And if you don’t happen to know that, you do now and so can expect to see it referred to again very soon.

Such as now. Baader-Meinhof is specifically about how the very first time you hear some word is followed by these other occurrences, so many that you can’t fathom how you never heard of this bleedin’ thing before. And that’s not what’s happened to me. I think I’ve had Baader-Meinhof Syndrome 2: This Time It’s Personal instead.

For I used to read screenplays extensively, then it dipped off to just occasionally enjoying one, then late last year there was a recommendation that one could try reading a script a day. The recommendation is on Hayley McKenzie’s website and I was persuaded by it. So I’ve done that.

Except we’re on 2 February as I write to you and so I should’ve read 33 scripts by now. I’ve slipped a teeny bit: just now I read my 112th. Look, I’ve had a lot of long train rides.

But having come back to being immersed in reading scripts, I’m now finding everybody’s talking about screenplays. It’s just that I don’t like everything I’m reading. Such as this:

“Even those of us who love movies may not realize the process from page to screen. I’ve read lots of movie scripts that don’t have any real excitement to them. It’s not until they become film that the beauty is revealed.”
Shawn King, Loop Insight

I’d give you a link to the full piece but a) that’s about it and 2) this Loop site is impossible to link to: do what you like and any link still routes you to the top of the front page and you’re expected to schlep through the entire site. To save you the trip, let me explain that King’s peg, his reason for saying this now, was that Pixar has released a video showing how a scene from Inside Out went from script to screen and I can link to the article that Loop linked to which linked to the video. When did you lose the will to live in that sentence?

Loop was quoting a site called Gizmodo which is here and its writer Julie Muncy takes the same angle but goes further:

“It’s a master class in how direction and acting can give a scene strength it doesn’t have on the page. While the action and dialogue is mostly identical between the script and the final film, the voice work, particularly Amy Poehler’s turn as Joy, lends drama and emotional resonance to work that doesn’t quite get there on the scripting alone.”
Julie Muncy, Gizmodo

May I give you one more quote?

“Bollocks.”
William Gallagher, right here

Truly, I read this stuff and it pickles me. That’s the word. I pickled up. I was unpleasant to people for an hour. And the chief printable thought I had was that these people should read some better bloody scripts. Of the 112 so far I’d rush them – hang on, let me count – 11. I’ve been reading chiefly TV scripts because, well, I like them, and of those there are ones from shows like Justified, Homicide: Life on the Street, Press Gang, Cheers and Sports Night that burst with verve and drama and rich comedy.

It’s not as if I think actors and directors and producers and the myriad other people bringing scripts to the screen aren’t necessary or don’t do anything or are not just as creative as writers. But if it’s not on the page, it ain’t ever going to be on the screen.

Except.

I keep thinking about one particular script I read back around 2003. Ronald D Moore’s script for Battlestar Galactica leaked online and I read it. Shrugged. It was okay, I thought, nothing special and I wasn’t fussed about whether I watched the show or not.

In fact, the DVD arrived at Radio Times at least two months before it aired in the UK and it was only late one Friday that I grabbed the first disc in order to have something to watch on my way home. By the time I got to Birmingham, I was steaming mad and pickling up because I hadn’t brought the second disc and it was going to be a week before I could see it.

If you haven’t seen Battlestar Galactica, it genuinely is a remarkable piece of drama and I could see that when I re-read the script. But I didn’t the first time.

I think I could muster an argument that Battlestar is science fiction and I wasn’t expecting this from that genre. I can throw in that it was a remake of a very gaudy, empty Star Wars knock-off from the 1970s. My reaction was coloured by low expectations.

But you’d think that would just make a fine drama feel even better. Yet there it was, all of it on the page and I missed it. I might go watch that Pixar video now. Or I might just read the Inside Out screenplay.

Women and Mentoring

This isn’t about women, it’s not about men and it’s only a bit about mentoring. Clearly I just like a good title. Listen, I don’t care whether someone is a man or a woman, if they’re a writer then I think there comes a point when they want guidance or mentoring. Or if I’m wrong, then I’ve just had a weird run of coincidence from writers who have the same weakness I think we all do.

So this week I turned down a man who wanted to hire me to mentor him. I have done mentoring on specific types of work or for specific types of writers and he didn’t fit either so I turned him down because I wasn’t the right person for him.

I did suggest things he could look into, though, and there was one particular point of his that I thought I could help with. He wanted to know whether he was approaching writing stories correctly, if he were doing the right thing. I told him who cares? If you end up with a good piece, it doesn’t matter if you write it in crayon on every second Tuesday of the year.

Half a beat later, a woman writer joked that what she wants most is someone to look over her work every quarter of an hour and tell her whether it’s going well or not.

You know she wasn’t joking. I know she wasn’t joking. She knew she wasn’t joking. So I told her in all seriousness that this would be a Very, Very Bad Idea.

She thought I was joking.

It happened again this week with another couple of writers so it’s been on my mind but I think these first two reveal a remarkably similar issue. They both want someone else to tell them if they’re right. That means, then, that they both think there is a right way to do something.

There’s something else, too, and I’m struggling to describe this. Let me try this way and you can tell me if I’m making sense. I think both of these writers unconsciously think that writing comes out in a straight line. That you get the first paragraph right and then you write the second. That you can show the first page, say, to someone, and they’ll give you a pass/fail.

But writing is a mess. No, more than that, writing is a fight. I don’t want to sound all male about it and I don’t equate writing to violence nor expect all writing to be conflict. Yet it is always a scrap. How’s that? It’s scrappy. You’re pulling this idea over there and nudging or shoving or easing it into another shape. You’re kneading the words and you’re fashioning one single loaf out of countless ingredients.

Possibly you’re making a really rubbish analogy and stretching it out in the hope that somewhere along the line it will make sense. Fail.

I won’t read your first paragraph because there’s no point until you’ve finished the whole piece. Then if I read, say, your script, then I do know from page one whether it’s working or not. That’s not some brilliance on my part, it’s because it is very quickly obvious when something is a fail. The only writer who can’t see it is the writer who wrote it.

But good or bad, instantly obvious or not, it needs the whole thing there or all anyone can tell you is if you type well.

That man I turned down, by the way, wrote a very good email. He’s a writer. I’ve read pieces by that woman and she writes with verve and life and vigour. She’s a writer.

They just both have to get on with writing. So do I. So do you.

I am not a god

Well, that didn’t last. Previously… a week ago I was the hottest and the coolest man around. Okay, so that took some pretty unlikely coincidences and it took your turning a blind eye to some obvious facts, but otherwise it was true and I basked.

This week I was mistaken for Damien Green, the disgraced Tory politician. Wait. I mean a disgraced Tory politician. I’ve lost track of how many of those there are.

Anyway, it was only for a moment but I continue to shudder.

Still, if I had a point last week, I thought it was that there is a place for each of us. There in the Canary Islands I meant it physically or geophysically but also very much in writing. I have been in situations where my writing was the worst and others where it was the best. I’m not convinced I’ve got that range so I put it down to the places.

Clearly, then, you need to find the right place for you.

But my brief mistaken identity made me realise that it’s not that simple. For you’d think I should run away from the party where this mistake happened and you’d think I should run back to the Canary Islands.

Only, after I spoke to you last week, I caught a cold in the Canaries – I don’t know why that suddenly sounds rude – and my final memory of the place is of shivering in hot weather next to a pool which in my delirium may or may not have had a fashion show form around me.

And the party where I gasped aloud was superb. It was the Writers’ Guild Awards night and, hand on heart, I haven’t had such a good evening in years. Easily the best awards I’ve been to, absolutely the most interesting room full of happy writers, I had a blast.

And a shudder. But chiefly a blast.

So if I can hang on to any possible semblance of a point, it might be this. Yes, there are places we fit in and they are fantastic. But I urgently need cosmetic surgery.

I am a god

Oh, yes. I am a god. Nope, I thought if I said it here as well as in the title you might not snigger. But when we’re done today, you are going to change your mind. Yes. You won’t snigger any more. You’ll laugh aloud.

Here’s the thing. By the time you read this, I’ll be back at home but for the last week I’ve been on holiday in the Canary Islands. Now, we just wanted sun and we just wanted to stop working for a bit, so we went for a particularly laid back and simple option which has worked very well.

It’s just that everyone else who’s opted for this option right now appears to be in their 70s or 80s.

Let’s just focus on this for a moment. I’m early fifties so I am the youngest man here.

Plus I’m a writer which you know is both a job and a life choice but some people still think is impressive.

So for this week, I am both the hottest and the coolest man around.

Now, I know I say that and you immediately wonder just how wrinkly everyone else must be. And you’re thinking about the bar staff who don’t look old enough to drink but stop that, stop being clever, just let me tell you that I am basking in this.

We’ve a few moments until we have to finish packing and leave. So I’m just going to go down to the pool for one last time to let everyone swoon at my three-pack.

12 Monkeys TV series logo

Draft Dodging

I’m a dozen scripts into my read-a-script-a-day thing and, curiously enough, the 12th one I read was the pilot to 12 Monkeys by Terry Matalas and Travis Fickett. And it’s put me in mind of something about writing that I realise I’ve been at risk of forgetting.

There are of course differences between various drafts we write of scripts and then naturally there are differences between that and the final cut of the filmed version. However, when all of it works, I think these different drafts tend to concentrate and improve the same things regardless of how many monkeys are in your story.

Let me give you an example. The opening teaser sequence of the 12 Monkeys pilot script has four characters walking through post-apocalyptic streets wearing protective clothing and breathing apparatus. The opening sequence of the aired version changes that to just two characters walking through a derelict building.

You’re thinking that’s cheaper and I won’t disagree for an instant. But there’s more. It takes 4 pages of script which includes 17 dialogue speeches. On screen, it takes 1 minute and has 1 long voiceover with just a single speech at the end.

I loathe voiceovers to the extent that I would’ve argued against this one as I would any of them – but I’d have been wrong. This one works and hearing it again now after watching three seasons of this show, I find it delicious that the very opening syllables set up something that recurs and has repercussions throughout the show.

But what I really like is that they ditched 16 speeches and left us with just the last one. As it happens, that too sets up a recurring theme but it’s also intriguing by itself. A man crouches over a body so long dead that it has decayed to a skeleton and he says to it: “See you soon”.

By dropping two characters, ditching costly effects and even saving on the wardrobe costs by losing the protective clothing, there’s no question but that the teaser scene is cheaper. But it’s also better because it keeps what matters and discards everything that doesn’t.

We overwrite. And we overwrite explanations. Worse, we abdicate opinions – wait, I need to explain that one a bit better. There’s a moment in the 12 Monkeys pilot script where that man, James Cole, has to kill a colleague. He does so and it reads as quite a jolt but then we get this from another character:

RAMSE: Had to be done. No choice.

You know that is said so that we are on the side of Cole, that we know he’s a Good Guy. What it actually does is externalise something that we should be thinking and feeling ourselves: we should be making our own mind up about this character. Given that the situation as written is bleedin’ obvious, you’d have to personally know the character being killed in order to disagree with what Cole has done. So telling us that it had to be done, no choice, is actually distancing us from the characters. It’s weakening our reaction to them therefore it’s weakening them.

That whole sequence is gone, possibly because it involved a fifth character and some flame thrower fire effects, but whatever the reason, its absence is an improvement.

Here’s one that stays in the show but is also improved with a new draft.

Cole puts the gun to his [Frost’s] head.

COLE: Let’s find out.

CRACK! The back of Frost’s head blows out

That’s Cole killing someone else – this can be a violent show – but here’s how that plays in the aired episode:

Cole puts the gun to his [Frost’s] head.

CRACK! The back of Frost’s head blows out

That’s it. No dialogue. I actually don’t dislike the “Let’s find out” line because it makes sense in the context. But still it’s close to something I loathe: the 1970s US TV wisecrack.

If those ever worked, they don’t now – go count how many times they do it in Star Wars: The Last Jedi and cringe – but I think it also points to something fundamental. Less is more.

I’ve read multiple drafts of scripts and I’ve seen how the video editing suite is really where a final draft is created. When it works, when this is done right, each new draft simplifies things. Yes, it probably makes things cheaper. But it makes it clearer, it pares down, it whittles down to what matters.

I’ll keep that in mind as I continue reading scripts but I hope I’ll also keep it in mind as write them.

You can read the 12 Monkeys pilot script online. The fourth and final season airs sometime this year and the first two are now on Netflix UK. The first three are on iTunes.

Bookshelf with script books

Reading scripture

My overcrowded office shelves include one bookcase full of screenplay books and another couple of shelves of A4-printed ones. I used to collect them because I used to read them. A lot. I would read a script and make a note of whether I liked it: just a simple note to come back to reread this one some time or to avoid that writer forever. I remember that I read over a thousand before I stopped bothering to make those notes but of course I carried on reading.

Only, what used to be a habitual purchase has become a rare one because there are dramatically fewer scripts and screenplays published any more. That’s entirely because so very many more are released online. Not only is that cheaper and easier than buying bookcases full of the things, it also has unmatched advantage that the scripts look the way they should.

Books always alter them. At best it’s in order to cram more words on the page and therefore have fewer pages. At worst it’s not the script, it’s a transcript. Admittedly that one is a problem online too: there are people who will write down every word said in a film and call it the script. I can’t knock anyone being dedicated to words but some will do it as an unbroken stream of dialogue without any regard to even which character is saying which sentence. Madness.

Yet you learn to avoid those and you learn where there are real scripts. Only, maybe because it’s now easy and maybe because there are so many available to choose from, I realised that I stopped reading scripts.

Not entirely. I can think of 300 or 400 TV episodes I’ve read. And it’s always faster to read a screenplay than to see a film so when I was curious about Aaron Sorkin’s Steve Jobs movie but not quite curious enough to see it, I read that. Then for instance I liked the sound of (500) Days of Summer by Scott Neustadter and Michael H Weber so I read that.

Curiously, I later enjoyed the film (500) Days of Summer more than most people I know who didn’t read the script. And I enjoyed Sorkin’s Steve Jobs screenplay more than the film when it finally turned up on Netflix the other day.

Still, overall, the trend was against me reading scripts – though I ran to get the screenplay to Arrival by Eric Heisserer as soon as I left the cinema – and as someone who counts himself as a scriptwriter, this isn’t brilliant.

So when Hayley McKenzie’s Script Angel firm ran a guest blog recommending we read one script a day, I was ready to hear that suggestion.

I read that blog on 22 December and from 23 December, I’ve read a script every day. The blog is right. I’m thinking in script form again. But I’m also just enjoying it. Because I’ve made it a daily task – it is actually there on my OmniFocus app To Do list every day – then I tell myself it’s work and for the short time it takes me to read a script, I seem to allow myself to be fully into it. Concentrating and yet also relaxing.

Today’s was Give Me a Ring Sometime, the pilot to Cheers by Glen and Les Charles. I tell you, television pilots are surely the hardest scripts to write and I knew that Cheers had one of the absolute best. I’ve seen that pilot episode many times but I haven’t read it before. And just like its spinoff Frasier, arguably the finest pilot script there is, seeing it on the page makes you appreciate it more.

It also makes you appreciate editing. I know Frasier was cut down to fit its ridiculously short on-air time and I’ve always seen that the pilot script was actually improved by the cutting. Now I know that Cheers, such a familiar piece of television to me, was also cut down. One entire character dropped completely and I think rightly.

Excuse me while I go watch the episode to see if there’s any sign of her. Yep. Once you know this woman had a significant role you can’t miss her. But that entire role is gone and I’m off pondering how her absence alters the tone, the pace, the humour. I’m also pondering how that actor felt, but that’s less because I’m a writer, more because I’m human.

Anyway, I’ll be back reading scripts tomorrow. If you’re into film scripts, by the way, bookmark the Daily Script and Simply Scripts. Neither is the best-designed site and in the latter you have to hunt to avoid unproduced scripts by fans.

If you’re into TV, you can get many scripts on both of those sites but by far the best resource is one called just TV Writing. I adore that one.

No strings attached

There’s a line in the new Star Wars film about something or other being at the end of a piece of string. I’m not being vague because I’ve already forgotten what it was, I’m trying to avoid spoiling a single thing. Mind you, the string line isn’t a single thing: they say it twice like it’s a bit cleverer than it actually is.

If I were going to review Star Wars: The Last Jedi then I’d be talking about what the characters say. For instance, it’s got a lot of wisecracks that need you to be in love with the characters or to be living in the 1970s on a diet of bad US television to enjoy. But since this isn’t a review, let me say that the film is a fun ride and immeasurably better than The Force Awakens.

I just keep coming back to that line about string.

As much as I did enjoy the film, it feels a mess and I think it lacks a piece of string pulling us through. It’s event after event and that isn’t enough for me.

I am certain that I’m saying something you already know because I’m certain I already knew it too. Yet seeing its absence is making me think and talk about it anew.

I was recently asked something like ‘what do you admire in art’ and I replied about writing where the piece sets out to do something and does it. I replied talking about the end of a piece where you have been taken somewhere you didn’t expect and didn’t predict yet in that final moment know is where the writer was always taking you. When that’s done right, the sheer perfection of it genuinely makes me cry.

Whether a story is explosive action or seductive calm, it should be constantly surprising but every single beat must also be taking you to where the writer intended. If you’ve got a great gag and it doesn’t move you in that direction, kill it. Each moment has to be the very best it can be – and it also has to be invisibly or visibly moving you to where the story is going.

Bugger. I’m thinking about this because of that line about string and I’ve now realised that it’s a rubbish analogy. I thought it was about being pulled through to somewhere or maybe that the string is a guideline of some kind.

But actually the best analogy I can think of is one I’ve thought of before so often that I may have bored you with it in a pub.

Stories are like pieces of wood that you rub your hand over. When you go in one direction, following the story for the first time, you’re rubbing your hand against the grain. So it’s bumpy, there are shards that cut into you, there are tiny slivers of wood that get into your skin.

And then when you rub the other way, from the end of the story backwards, you’re rubbing with the grain and now the wood feels perfectly smooth.

Star Wars: The Last Jedi is bumpy both ways. It’s got great moments and actually I think the ending works best of it all, but the film lacks something huge. I think it lacks this sense of a storyteller pulling you through.

It’s called children’s theatre, yet…

I want you to flashback with me to when I was at a famous Birmingham Rep schools’ Christmas play. It’s a very long way: I want you to flashback three whole days.

I don’t remember whether my own school took us to plays when I was there but then I didn’t like my school and my school didn’t like me so we just made a pact not to bother each other much. Whereas I think from the uniform colours that on Wednesday the majority of two primary schools were taken to the Rep.

Angela and I inadvertently went with them all to see The One Hundred and One Dalmatians, adapted from Dodie Smith’s novel by Debbie Isitt and directed by Tessa Walker. We went because we wanted to see it, we went on Wednesday afternoon because we wanted to see it on Angela’s birthday and there was no evening performance that day.

One school took up all the seats toward the front of the auditorium and the other took all of them toward the back. The Rep put us in the single line between the schools, like it was a neutral zone.

Look, the short version of this is that I urge you to go see this play and the only ever so slightly longer version is that I demand you see it with several hundred schoolchildren. Plus a dozen or so battle-worn schoolteachers.

I did feel for those. Outside the theatre, those hundreds of individual kids were one single, continuous roar. It was spooky: any one child you looked at was probably not saying anything but the noise was one single unbroken wall of sound.

Until the play started. The One Hundred and One Dalmatians runs for something like two hours with an interval and the show had those kids from the very start to the very end. Total command of their attention.

I’ve worked with kids of this age and I know that getting their attention and keeping it is damn hard. So I was admiring the play for that until I forgot because it totally commanded my attention too.

I’ve often seen theatre that’s meant for children, sometimes for work, sometimes just because it was the Christmas show, and every time I’ve thought the same thing. I have thought how glorious it must be to be a child experiencing this. Theatre is genuinely magical when you are exactly the right age to be swept away and to have these moments that will stay with you for the rest of your life.

It just turns out that the exact right age is 52.

 

The play has the Birmingham Rep’s typically brilliant set but it also bursts out with characters appearing way up in the auditorium. And I tell you, when Cruella De Ville appeared at the end of our row, I was actually scared.

Isn’t this just fantastic? Hang on, let me check something. Right, The One Hundred and One Dalmatians is on at the Birmingham Rep until Saturday 13 January. Go book at least one performance right now.